Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 17;   April 23, 2003: Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza

Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.

The lab phone rang, and Julie picked up. It was the night guard reporting that the pizza had arrived. "Be right down," she said, and hung up. She went around the corner and found Bugs leaning back in the rolling chair, feet propped up on the system desk, watching the colored bars dancing on the screen.

"Pizza's here, your turn," she said.

Pizza"Right," he said, "Take over." He left and Julie sat down, wondering when they would finally find this bug. Whenever they ran the test with the Marigold module, the system failed immediately. When they swapped out Marigold and put the old rev in, it ran just fine.

They were stumped. After three weeks of long nights, Julie was becoming convinced that the problem could only be in the midnight pizza.

Bugs returned, and they sat down to eat. Partway through the first slice, Julie had a thought. "What if Marigold isn't the problem?"[Brenner 2006]

Chewing a mouthload, Bugs somehow managed, "What?"

When we're stressed,
critical thinking is difficult
"I mean, suppose there's a problem in the system itself, and the old rev of this module compensates somehow. The system would work with the old rev, but fail with Marigold."

Bugs stared into his paper plate, but stopped chewing. "You mean…we've wasted three weeks?"

It turned out that Julie was right. Since the system had run flawlessly for years, everyone assumed that the system itself handled the data correctly. But Marigold really did things correctly, and that made it incompatible with the rest of the system. Julie had uncovered an unrecognized assumption, which led them to incorrect conclusions.

Critical thinking is the process of drawing sound inferences based on evidence, principles, and an understanding of the world. When we're stressed, critical thinking is difficult, because so much of our energy is consumed in stress. Unrecognized assumptions are just one kind of failure of critical thinking. Here are three more examples of failures of critical thinking.

Wishing
When we want a specific outcome, and incoming information is consistent with that outcome, we tend to believe that the outcome has occurred, even if the data supports alternate explanations.
Misunderstanding statistics
When we notice a freakish coincidence, it can seem so unlikely that we feel that it can't be coincidence. We conclude incorrectly that correlation is evidence of connection.
Rushing to judgment
When we're aware that we don't have actual proof, but we're sure we're right anyway, we can believe that the proof will emerge soon enough. So we decide that our inference is the truth, and we forget that we don't have proof.

To work effectively on a complex problem, a group needs freedom from panic. When long hours and excessive stress limit our ability to think critically, the problem truly can be in the midnight pizza. Go to top Top  Next issue: A Message Is Only a Message  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Footnotes

[Brenner 2006]
This is an example of a "brilliant question." See "Asking Brilliant Questions," Point Lookout for November 22, 2006, for more. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A time ManagerTime Management in a Hurry
Many of us own books on time management. Here are five tips on time management for those of us who don't have time to read the time management books we've already bought.
Tenacious under full sailThe Solving Lamp Is Lit
We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
Six kids on a PlayPumpThe Questions Not Asked
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
World global temperature departuresConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A dog playing catch with a discComing August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other peopleAnd on September 4: How Messages Get Mixed
Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message. Available here and by RSS on September 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!